Exploring Dyslexia, LGBTQ+ Identity, and Writing - Interview with Author K. Vaishali

Namrata (Interviewer)
Namrata

Let’s talk about your book Homeless: Growing up Lesbian and Dyslexic in India (Published by Yoda Press and Simon & Schuster, India). How was your publishing journey? While querying for your manuscript, what was your overall experience?

I didn't actually query any agents or publishers for my book, Homeless. Instead, a fortunate turn of events led me to discover the perfect publishers while I was still in the process of editing my manuscript. It all started with a non-fiction writing workshop I attended at Yoda Press. The experience was invaluable, and I learned so much from it. Feeling inspired, I reached out to their founder, Arpita Das, seeking her guidance as my writing mentor. Her expertise and support were instrumental in shaping Homeless into a polished and well-rounded book.

(Author) K. Vaishali
Under Arpita's mentorship, my manuscript underwent a transformative process. It was during this time that Simon & Schuster, in collaboration with Yoda Press, expressed interest in publishing my work. I was overjoyed to have both prestigious publishers on board. For Homeless, I had always envisioned a publisher who had a strong track record of publishing important queer books, along with an editor who possessed the sensibility and sensitivity required to handle queer writing. Yoda Press has been at the forefront of queer publishing in India, and Arpita's deep understanding of my vision for Homeless made her the perfect fit as my editor.

Moreover, I had a strong desire for my book to reach every corner of India, to touch the lives of as many queer individuals as possible. Thankfully, Simon & Schuster had an extensive distribution network that could help with this. I was thrilled to get the publishing situation I had hoped for, without the need to go through the traditional querying process. I couldn't have been more fortunate to have found such a supportive and well-suited team to bring my book to the world.

 

With so many memoirs (including yours) releasing this year, do you think Indian publishing and readers have finally opened up to memoirs from marginalized communities now?

Narratives from people of marginalized communities are powerful stories of hope and survival that our souls need in this highly polarized world. In the non-fiction market, we’ve seen a steady rise in the popularity of self-help books in recent years. Awe-inspiring memoirs have always been a good source of self-help as they are stories of resilience, courage, and resourcefulness in the face of challenges—and that’s the reason why they resonate with a lot of readers.

Without memoirs, we only have literature about marginalized communities in research papers. These researchers are often not a person from the community they are researching about and they tend to interpret things they see within the realm of their own understanding—which doesn’t offer a lot of real insight. With memoirs, when people tell their own stories, it becomes an account for their community or the intersections of communities they are part of. These accounts are richer historical accounts than any other sources. For example, the book Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, Audre Lorde depicts the lesbian bar scene and the experience of getting an abortion in New York City in the 1950s from the lens of a lesbian woman of colour. These accounts tell us a history of a time and a place that we can’t find in mainstream literature.

The hybrid nature of memoirs of people from marginalized communities that combine creative narration, history, and self-help have attracted a lot of readers and the publishing industry is finally catching up!

 

Your book documents the struggle of a queer person in India after coming out. Be it professional challenges, or personal, you document them well in your story. If someone were to ask, what are the three things you would advise a person planning to come out?

I’d first advise a person to come out to their friends or family only if they aren’t emotionally, physically, or financially dependent on them. In a sexually-repressed and gender-rigid country like India, there’s a very real chance that a queer person may not find acceptance for their sexuality and gender identity; there is a very real chance of losing friends and family over it. It’s important for one’s own survival that they come out when they are independent in every way.

Second, educate your family and friends about queer identities before coming out, or at the very least, test the waters. This’d help you prepare for what’s to come, even though it’s still completely unpredictable how someone will react. I’ve heard stories of queer allies reacting very badly when their own family member comes out; and on the other hand, I’ve heard very conservative people being very open and accepting. You never know what’s going to happen, but it’s good to get an idea.   

Lastly, come out when you are mentally strong because you’d likely have to defend yourself and your every action to other people after coming out. Don’t come out when you are going through mental health issues or depressive episodes even though hiding your identity is only making your mental health worse.


Your thoughts on about queer representation in Indian movies and books by Indian writers. 

In terms of Indian movies, I see things are changing. Queer people aren’t the butt of the jokes as often as we used to be. We are finally portrayed with some complexity and shown as human beings with real lives and feelings. In 2023, there’ve been more movies and shows made around queer themes with queer characters as leads even if they are played by cisgender heterosexual actors most of the time. The show Made in Heaven highlighted queer issues and even cast transgender actress Trinetra as one the the main characters. But they still cast straight actors to play a lesbian couple, and showed an engagement ceremony between the couple that felt bland and underwhelming. In the film Haddi, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, a cis man, plays a trans woman which is very problematic. The character also touts harmful stereotypes of transgender women by portraying them as a villain engaging in sex work. We still have a long way to go, and I hope to see more queer films written by queer writers and played by queer actors.

The landscape of publishing is changing too with many queer writers telling their own stories. We’ve had quite a few memoirs being published by transgender and gay writers. We’ve also seen some short story collections and genre fiction of queer themes. It shows that the publishing industry and the market forces are welcoming such books which is a very good sign. I hope to see more such books and also for such books to get translated into regional languages. 

 

With Badhai Do winning the National Award this year, it feels that finally queer-hood is being talked about in the mainstream. What are your thoughts on this? And how do you think this will impact queer lives in India.

I really enjoyed watching Badhaai Do. I watched it with my partner and we both enjoyed most of it. I was very happy to see the mainstream acceptance that this movie has gotten, because till now the only mainstream movies with queer themes have been very homophobic and this film wasn’t. It had its own problems, but I liked that it showed queer people as regular joes—a teacher and policeman who are just trying to live their lives under the pressures of their families and society, which is very relatable to a lot of people. It was a really encouraging sign that despite getting released at a time when theaters couldn’t run at full capacity because of COVID, the movie did very well and it was actually profitable. Badhaai Do also released in UAE, so the queer-themed films we are making in India are also having an impact on the lives of queer people outside of India. This film getting mainstream attention and national awards is proof that we as a society are ready for more such films and that’s really positive. I’m excited to see where we go from here.


Tips for writers who are working on books and/or movies with queer representation.

To writers from the queer community, I’d say be bold and honest. While writing the first draft, don’t worry about whether you’re writing queer characters stereotypically or in a hurtful manner—it’s just your first draft! Go with the flow and focus on telling an honest story in the first draft without thinking about how it’ll be perceived. Find a good mentor, peer reader, or editor, from the queer community if possible, who you trust to work with you on rounding out your writing and who can give you honest feedback on your portrayal of queerness.  

For writers who are not from the community, I’d say please don’t sit in your room and think about what the life of a queer person is like and use your imagination to fill in the details—you won’t be able to tell a nuanced story! Talk to a queer person, or better yet, get a queer person as a consultant on your project—and please credit and pay them! If you’re writing a minor character or don’t have the budget to hire a consultant, still talk to a queer person or read queer memoirs, which are a great source of first-hand lived experience of a queer person.

 

A queer person has many battles to fight. Be it acceptance from family and society, finding love, equal rights in society, or mere existence. What according to you is the toughest battle for a queer person and what tips would you like to give them from your own experience in dealing with it.

As queer people, our toughest battles are in the face of queer-phobia. At times this could manifest as internalized queer-phobia, which could push someone to be at odds with their own identity. When one feels this way, they sometimes make the wrong choices for themselves and go into a dark and lonely place, unable to grapple with their own basic humanness. At times queer-phobia manifests in our immediate family, sometimes as extreme as cutting off ties or putting the queer person in danger to try to “fix” them. Sometimes this also manifests in subtle ways when a family might not react to that reality at all and pretend like the queer part of a queer person doesn’t exist. My own family’s queer-phobia went from being extreme to more subtle. The other day I was thinking of something my father would say to something my partner said, and it made me sad that they’d never really have a conversation or share a joke because my father doesn’t really acknowledge her presence in my life. At times queer-phobia could lead to queer people facing discrimination from educational and occupational institutions. All forms of queer-phobia have severe psychological effects on a person’s self-esteem and well being.

Without the right resources and allies around, it becomes really tough to navigate these situations, so my tip is to find these resources and find allies. Many organizations, which operate in major cities in India and online, now offer legal support, mental health support, skilling opportunities, temporary shelter, jobs, and socializing opportunities. I urge anyone facing queer-phobia to reach out to these organizations and get their help. I also found that having friends who are allies, who embrace me for the queer person I am, have really helped me feel less alone and helped me live my life authentically. But this wasn’t easy. I used to cut off a lot of my cisgender and heterosexual friends thinking they’ll never be allies, but over time I’ve learnt to be better at communicating my needs and expectations from friendships which has in turn invited them into a dialogue with me about what allyship means or me. Many of my friends who are not from the queer community have gone on the journey of self-reflection and growth to be really good allies today.

 

Now that we have talked about all things that do not work, let’s talk about things that work.

Recommended movies by queer directors

I’m bad at recalling names of films and will surely kick myself for forgetting a good one, but here are some films that I really enjoyed:

The Blood of a Poet (1932) by Jean Cocteau
Maurice (1987) by James Ivory
Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988) by Pedro Almodóvar
Mysterious Skin (2004) by Gregg Araki
Milk (2008) by Gus Van Sant
A Single Man (2009) by Tom Ford
Heartbeats (2010) by Xavier Dolan
I am (2010) by Onir
The Kids Are All Right (2010) by Lisa Cholodenko
Chitrangada (2012) by Rituparna Ghosh
Laurence Anyways (2012) by Xavier Dolan
Carol (2015) by Todd Haynes
Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019) by Céline Sciamma
Aftersun (2022) by Charlotte Wells

I also really enjoyed the films Tangerine (2015) by Sean Baker and Moonlight (2016) by Barry Jenkins, even though these aren’t made by queer directors. I’m also looking forward to watching independent movies that are released this year like Pinecone by Onir and Joyland by Saim Sadiq when they screen in my city or find their way to an OTT platform.  

 

Recommended books by queer writers

I’m afraid I’m going to forget some favourites again, but here are some good books:

The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) by Oscar Wilde

To the Lighthouse (1927) by Virginia Woolf

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955) by Tennessee Williams

Giovanni's Room (1956) by James Baldwin

Zami: A New Spelling of My Name (1982) by Audre Lorde

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (2006) by Alison Bechdel

Why be Happy When You Could be Normal? (2011) by Jeanette Winterson

Less (2017) by Andrew Sean Greer

In the Dream House (2019) by Carmen Maria Machado

I haven’t read many queer-themed books by South-Asian origin writers yet. Because of dyslexia, I prefer listening to audiobooks and much of the South-Asian queer books don’t have audiobook versions yet. This has been a huge barrier for me to access these books. 

 

Recommended books that have great queer representation.

For me, great queer representation isn’t so much about the social, personal, and political aspects of being queer but about the lived experience of a queer loneliness and how one sees themselves in this world. In that regard, these works stand out:

After Sapho (2022) by Selby Wynn Schwartz
On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous (2019) by Ocean Vuong
Poems by Elizabeth Bishop, Mary Oliver, and Emily Dickinson

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